The story behind this widely accepted date is a fascinating one. The most likely date of Christ’s birth is thought to have been in the autumn, around the time of the Jewish feast of Tabernacles. The earliest records of a feast in honor of this birth are from a church in Alexandria, Egypt in 200AD, although the celebration only became widely accepted in the third and fourth centuries.
As early Christians spread across Roman Europe, they found widespread celebration of the feast celebrating the Roman god Saturn. In northern Europe, they were exposed to the Feast of Yule, a widespread solstice celebration for many tribes and clans. In the East, the Festival of the Invincible Sun was the major winter celebration. Along the way, in order to communicate their faith in a way that was relevant to the cultures they were in, they decided to take over these traditions and turn them into a celebration of Christ’s birth. The celebration thus moved into the winter season.
In the process, many customs and traditions associated with the older festivals became part of the Christian tradition. Many homes today still celebrate Christmas with decorations of evergreen wreaths, holly, and mistletoe, along with Christmas trees and colored lights. Santa Claus or Father Christmas, caroling throughout neighborhoods, exchanging presents, and attending parties are other ancient traditions assimilated into the celebration of Christ’s birth.
All these are examples of contextualization – which has been referred to by some as ‘the genius of the Christian faith’. Biblical faith should not force you to abandon your culture. Rather, it embraces the best parts of culture as having been placed there by God since creation as signposts to and indicators of God’s existence. Consequently, there is no culture that is superior to others. Each culture uniquely reflects the beauty of God’s creation!
Most churches in the East began observing the feast on January 6th while Western churches observed it on 25th of December. By the end of the fourth century however, almost all Christian churches had accepted the December date. It was not until the 11th Century, that the word ‘Christmas’ was first used, from the Old English phrase ‘Cristes Maesse’, which means “the Mass of Christ.”
Across the world, different cultures have added their own twist to Christmas celebrations. Coptic Christians in Ethiopia and Egypt celebrate Christmas on 7th of January. In India, they decorate banana or mango trees, while in Ghana, palm trees are laden with candles. In Finland, people visit graves of their relatives to light a candle on Christmas Eve.
In the Philippines, children leave their brightly polished shoes and washed socks on windowsills for the three kings to fill at night. In Ghana, Christmas dinner is not complete without fufu and okra soup while in Liberia, rice, beef and biscuits are what make it happen! Zimbabweans make sure they have plenty of bread, jam and tea to eat along with their goat meat.
In our own part of the world, the entire region literally shuts down for two weeks as people travel upcountry to celebrate with family members and loved ones. Matatu fares shoot up in the process, and malls and bars everywhere are filled with revelers. Churches throng with worshippers singing Christmas Carols. Goats and chickens are consumed in great numbers.
All this to celebrate the momentous life that changed history!